Thursday, March 24, 2011

Iowa vs Cornell vs Michigan

My name is Mary-Alice, and I am a poet heading to Michigan this fall. I am very, very nervous about whether or not I made the right decision, as I was in the unbelievably lucky position of also getting into Iowa and Cornell, and it was impossible for me to visit before committing. I won't focus on the things I didn't like about Iowa or Cornell because I know they're great programs. They just aren't as good a fit for me as Michigan is.

That said, I think Michigan's program is the right choice for me for the following reasons:
  • Beginning with my cohort, Michigan is a 3-year program for those who choose it. We'll graduate in 2 years and have the option of taking a $25k fellowship to complete a book over the course of a year. This development sealed it for me. It appears that if I want to stay and teach for a 4th year, that may also be possible.
  • The size of the program (22) seems just about right. Iowa has almost 50 students each year, and Cornell has 8. Both extremes in size turned me off. I've already received a lot of personal attention from the faculty, and I think I will be able to form close relationships here without feeling stifled.
  • My first year I will have no teaching responsibilities, so I can intern at the University of Michigan Press, Canarium Press (a new poetry press), and the Michigan Quarterly Review for a few hours each.
  • My second year I will get experience teaching both composition and creative writing. I will be given wide latitude in designing and teaching the creative writing course. Michigan's pedagogical training looks amazing.
  • I like the academic emphasis of the program. There's a required reading list to ensure everyone has a solid background, and each semester we are to take an academic course along with the workshop. H0wever, there's a lot of latitude in this requirement, with MFA students often being allowed to do creative projects instead of writing term papers. And it's easy enough to substitute writing courses (I plan on taking creative nonfiction this fall).
  • The University of Michigan has a great reputation around the world, and therefore offers strong classes in every department I might explore, a good alumni network, and world-class facilities.
  • Even though I hate winter, I could see myself in Ann Arbor for 3 or more years. It's diverse and progressive with a fabulous literary scene, has the most bookstores per capita of any city in the US, and is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live. There's not so much to do that campus life suffers (I wouldn't want to go to school in NYC for this reason), but there is enough to do that I wouldn't ever be bored.
  • No particular aesthetic is championed or encouraged. There is no homogenizing effect.
  • This doesn't mean much, but Michigan had one student in poetry win the Stegner, while Iowa had none in poetry. This leads me to believe that going to Iowa would not necessarily give anyone an advantage in winning the Stegner, something I hope to do after my 3 years at Ann Arbor.
  • Michigan has dedicated advisers who help students navigate the job market after graduation and hosts colloquia on publishing and teaching periodically. Iowa explicitly says it doesn't have the resources to do this.
  • The students just seem really damn happy, united, and enthusiastic. They're always together socially, and have organized an informal first-year reading series to prepare for the second-year series, which attracts a sizeable audience. I have no doubt that everyone in my cohort will be passionate and talented. I have a lot to learn from them.
  • Last and perhaps least, there is the amazing funding. In addition to the comfortable stipend, there is money to do internships, to travel and do research, and the opportunity to win tens of thousands of dollars in prizes.
There were lots of other random, tiny perks (I'm actually excited about exploring Detroit when/if I have time), but in the end, I just did my research, talked to lots of current students at each place, and went with my gut. I hope I have made the right decision and I will continue to chronicle my experience at Michigan here.


  1. It sounds like a great program, MAD. That first year with no teaching would have sealed the deal for me. What an awesome opportunity!

  2. Having grown up in the Ann Arbor area, I can't say enough things about how wonderful the city is. It's a welcome and happy community! There are lots of good places to eat and things to do. It has a great art scene, and fantastic local music. Let me know if you want recommendations of restaurants, bars, etc. I lived there last summer, and grew up about 20 minutes away.

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  4. I'm not sure how to reply directly to comments. Sheerah, I'm jealous you got to visit. Are you on Facebook? If so, please add me. I'm going to start an email chain in a couple of weeks when the cohort is finalized so we can all get to know each other!

  5. Chrissy, thanks for the offer. Any recommendations for the darkest dive bar would be much appreciated.

  6. Hi Mary-Alice!

    Congratulations on your decision. I'm also heading to Michigan this fall for fiction. (And hello, Sheerah!) I feel almost overwhelmed by excitement. Reading your post made me giddy. I wasn't able to attend the on-campus weekend either, but gosh, I wish I could have! Can't wait to meet you and the rest of our cohort. I'd love to join the email chain...

    Do you have any idea when we might receive the reading list? Or when orientation begins? I keep scouring the website for info., but I should probably just email Eileen.

    Happy writing until the Fall.
    And all the best to you!

    Gina Balibrera


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